The British composer has asked for help from the Home Office to get ‘lifesaving medicine’ in…
July 19, 2022, 4:54 PM
William Walton, composer of ‘Crown Imperial’, imported up to 2,000 prescription pills each year with the help of the Home Office, newly released documents reveal.
William Walton, the British composer behind classical music’s royal favorites Imperial Crown and Orb and Scepteronce sought help from the Home Office to ‘illegally’ import prescription drugs into his home in Italy, according to new documents released by the National Archives at Kew.
The documents, which have remained secret since their creation in the 1980s, reveal Walton’s addiction to the stimulant Ritalin and the role of his wife Lady Susana in ensuring that her husband could receive his prescription after the Italian government changed its laws restricting drug use. .
Ritalin is a prescription drug and stimulant of the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord.
Although it’s unclear why Walton relied on this drug, Ritalin is most commonly prescribed today to treat ADHD and, less commonly, narcolepsy. Walton’s prescription came from his Harley Street doctor, Michael Wilson, who stressed the importance of the composer having access to his “essential life-saving drugs” in testimony to authorities.
Read more: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Contribution to Classical Music
Walton and his wife had moved to the Italian island of Ischia, just off Naples, in 1956. At the time, Ritalin was not a legal drug there, so Walton collected up to 2,000 pills a year from Dr. Wilson while traveling. in London, and brings them back to Italy with him.
A wrench was thrown in the works in 1978, when the Home Office’s Drugs Branch informed Dr. Wilson that his arrangement with the composer was, in fact, illegal. Instead, it was arranged for Walton to access his prescription through a legal loophole. Dr. Wilson would write a one-year prescription for the drug, and British and Italian authorities would issue one-time licenses to circumvent laws against exporting controlled substances.
Everything changed in 1982, when the Italian government legalized Ritalin, but did not make it available in the quantities the composer needed. Authorities receiving supplies also said the new law revoked import licenses and they could no longer accept deliveries of Walton’s prescription from the UK.
Recently aged 80, the composer was understandably distressed. As the need for a new supply of drugs grew more and more pressing, he again asked for help from the British government.
Lady Susana wrote to a police inspector friend asking if he would send the year’s supply, despite knowing that granting her request would break the law. Instead, the inspector contacted Cabinet Secretary Robert Armstrong.
Negotiations went back and forth between Downing Street and the Home Office, before Armstrong wrote to Italian Ambassador Andrea Cagiati for help. Cagiati responded, saying it would be impossible to resume import licenses as before, but would see if he could pull some strings in Rome, to get his prescription through the Italian healthcare system.
Lady Susana, on hearing this update from Sir Robert, replied with a handwritten postcard – with a portrait of William Walton at 46, no less – enthusiastically thanking him for his help:
“I just wanted to thank you once again for taking an interest in William’s problem with ‘Ritalin’. The Italian Embassy is now trying to help.
“William is recovering well and we think we can return to the Savoy on Monday. So another few weeks and we might be allowed to fly to Naples. We are very lucky.
“Best love, Susana.”
Addressed as being sent from the Bristow Ward of St Thomas’ Hospital in central London, this correspondence is the last known record, and the trail cools thereafter.
Sir William Walton died in his wife’s arms at his home in Ischia in 1983, weeks before his 81st birthday. According to Lady Susana, the composer had been suffering from heart and lung problems for several months and finally died on the morning of March 9 from a pulmonary haemorrhage.